Using Art to Practice Mindfulness with Holly Combs and MHA’s Karen Martoglio

“Creativity is piercing the mundane to find the marvelous.” — Bill Moyers, American journalist and political commentator

Over the last decade, mindfulness has become something of a buzzword in popular culture. However, the practice of focusing one’s attention entirely on the present has been around for thousands of years, likely originating with the ancient Buddhists of India. What’s more, mindfulness-based interventions have been used by psychologists since at least the 1970s and 1980s.

Since then, much evidence has shown that practicing mindfulness can have positive outcomes for mental health and wellness. For example, research has shown that people who are predisposed toward mindfulness are more likely to be psychologically healthy. When it comes to interventions for behavioral health, studies have shown that mindfulness exercises can help people cope with stress and the symptoms of anxiety and depression. And some research even suggests that mindfulness could be a protective factor against the development of certain mental health conditions.

One of the most common ways to practice mindfulness is through meditation, but this is an activity that can feel intimidating for some people. Many of us picture meditation as something mystical and mysterious that we wouldn’t even know how to begin, let alone perform successfully. But what if there was something we could do to practice mindfulness that came a little more naturally—something as simple as drawing shapes on a sheet of paper?

Fortunately, simple artistic activities like doodling can actually be an effective tool for practicing mindfulness. We spoke with Holly Combs, an Indianapolis-based artist and public speaker, and Karen Martoglio, Executive Director of Mental Health America of Putnam County, to learn more about the mindfulness benefits of artistic activities.

Art as an Expression of Mindfulness

"I started practicing mindfulness ten years ago by drawing patterns, and what I was doing was transporting myself to the present by directing what I was seeing, hearing, touching and feeling," says Holly Combs, an Indianapolis-based artist and public speaker.

According to Holly Combs, art isn’t something a person does to create a beautiful work or object. Rather, art is a way to get in touch with our inner selves. Art is what I consider a ‘red carpet’ for difficult topics—things people don’t know how to talk about,” she says. “There are literal things you can talk about. For example, ‘That building is a brick building. They used mortar to put it up.’ But emotions are harder to talk about because they’re more abstract and personal.”

Combs has built a career out of helping people cope with difficult emotions through art. Since 2014, she has conducted workshops with everyone from elementary school students to government officials and corporate executives, training them in the use of art to express their deepest emotions and live in the present. Some of her most impactful work has been with juvenile offenders in the criminal justice system, with whom she has used artistic expression as a tool for rehabilitation (and which she spoke about in her well-received TEDx Talk). She explains:

“When I worked in detention centers, I realized that the juvenile offenders didn’t feel like they could talk to me. So I said, ‘We’re just going to draw. I’ll put out pencils, and here are some geometric patterns on a page that you can color-in if you’d like.’ Letting them do something with their hands and their minds helped them to open up.

One day I went to a maximum-security juvenile detention center, and I was working with all the kids, and the weirdest thing happened: a guard sat down and joined in the activity. And then the counselors sat down. And then the therapists sat down. And I realized, ‘Oh, this is for everybody.’ “

For Combs, this experience demonstrated art’s power to instill mindfulness in the artist. She says, “If I were to tell kids that the action of putting pen on paper is bringing them to the present, to this moment, they would think it’s BS. But I don’t have to over-explain it, and I don’t have to teach them mindfulness. The moment they’re with me, and focused, and sharing—that’s mindfulness.”

How MHA of Putnam County Is Spreading the Message of Art and Mindfulness

"In our daily lives, we try to fix a lot of problems and address a lot of situations. Mindfulness is stepping back a little bit, being less focused on the minutiae and more aware of the bigger picture," says Karen Martoglio, Executive Director of Mental Health America of Putnam County.

Like its affiliate branch in Hendricks County, Mental Health America of Putnam County is a non-profit organization dedicated to helping people find and access mental health resources. It primarily achieves this mission by providing mental health education and essential training for local community members.

Karen Martoglio, Executive Director of MHAoPC, shares Combs’ perspective on art and mindfulness. “Art is a mechanism to engage your mind. You need to focus when you create art, so you can tune out some of the noise in your life. It can refocus your attention and help you not get bogged down in the minutiae of any problems you may have,” she says.

For anyone who would like to begin practicing art-based mindfulness, Martoglio recommends giving “Zentangle” a try. Started by a husband and wife duo from Massachusetts, Zentangle is a method of creating artwork from simple, structured patterns. While at its core not very different from the drawing exercises that Combs does with juvenile offenders, Zentangle is specifically designed to be a relaxing exercise that encourages meditation and mindfulness. Martoglio explains:

It’s an opportunity to relax and free your mind of worries by concentrating on a task. It combines meditation and attention refocusing in an activity that’s really quite simple, but which also produces something beautiful. It’s not only a mindfulness practice that clears your mind, but when you get done, you actually have something to show for it, which I think is really rewarding. And if it really clicks with you, it’s something you can do anytime, anywhere. You don’t need any special equipment. If you have a piece of paper and a pen, you can just go for it. So, I think it’s a win-win on many different levels.”

Although art and mindfulness can be helpful tools for coping with difficult life situations, it’s important to note that mindfulness practice is not psychological treatment. If you suffer from a mental health illness, we strongly encourage you to seek professional help.

If you’re interested in learning how to practice mindfulness through art, MHA of Putnam County is holding an “Intro to Zentagle” class at 10:00 a.m. on Saturday, November 23rd. If you live in or near Greencastle, IN, consider stopping by for some guided instruction on art and mindfulness! (Pre-registration is required.)

Additional details and contact information can be found in the flyer below.

Zentangle Poster 11.23.2019

Employment Services: Helping People with Mental Disabilities Find Rewarding Work

Celebrating National Career Development Month!

Work is an important part of every person’s life. For many adults, work makes up a significant portion of how we spend our time each day. It plays a key role in how we view and define ourselves, and it’s a primary factor of occupational wellness, one of the eight dimensions of wellness. Suffice it to say, rewarding work and a fulfilling career can have a large influence on a person’s mental health.

However, not everyone who wants to work can do so. Disabilities and impairments, whether they are physical or psychological, often pose significant barriers to employment for people who live with them. In addition to financial strains caused by unemployment, research has shown that people who are unemployed suffer from more mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety and distress, than those who are employed.

For these reasons, people who have disabilities can benefit greatly from services that help them find or return to gainful employment. These services may include vocational guidance and counseling, job placement assistance, or training and education, and they’re typically offered by government agencies in cooperation with local community health organizations.

Cummins Behavioral Health Systems is proud to be one such organization providing employment services in central Indiana. In celebration of National Career Development Month, we spoke with Jennifer Crooks, Cummins’ Director of Employment Services, to learn more.

Employment Services in a Nutshell

"We've had tons and tons of success stories. It's wonderful to see people that have kept their job for a long period of time and are grateful that we assisted them," says Jennifer Crooks, BSW, Director of Employment Services at Cummins BHS.

So, what exactly are employment services, and how can someone go about receiving them? “Employment services here at Cummins include a lot of different things,” Jennifer says. “Life skills specialists, therapists, doctors, or anybody that works at Cummins can refer consumers for services. Some people just have the dream that they want to work one day, or that they want to get a job in a few years. Other people don’t ever want to work, they just want to volunteer. They want to do something meaningful to give back to the community.”

In order to be eligible for Cummins’ employment services, a person must have a mental disability or disorder that makes it difficult for them to work. Some common examples include generalized anxiety, social anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, schizophrenia, and schizoaffective disorder. The type and scope of services provided can vary widely from person to person, as Jennifer explains:

“It’s very consumer-driven. Some people want us there every step of the way and really need a lot of support once they start working. Other people just need us to help them write their résumé, submit applications and practice interviewing skills. It’s 100% their choice, and it’s a little bit different when you’re talking about a mental health disability as opposed to a physical or developmental disability. A lot of people don’t want that known to their employer, so if they work somewhere the public is allowed, we may go to their place of work to observe them, but their employer doesn’t have to know that’s what we’re doing.”

However, Cummins’ employment services aren’t reserved only for existing clients. Through a partnership with Indiana’s Family and Social Services Administration, Cummins also assists individuals who are referred from outside the organization.

Cummins BHS and Indiana Vocational Rehabilitation Services

As mentioned above, many state and local governments have programs for assisting citizens with employment needs. In Indiana, this is done through the FSSA’s Vocational Rehabilitation Services, or VR. This program provides individualized services to help people with disabilities prepare for, obtain or retain employment. As part of the program, individuals seeking services through VR choose an employment provider, which could be Cummins BHS or another community healthcare provider.

“We provide services to consumers that come to us from VR,” Jennifer says. “If they’ve gone through the intake process and picked us as their employment specialist, we work through the VR process and help them figure out their vocational goals. We do a lot of job shadowing and situational assessments to help them get experience, and we support them as much as they want.”

In most cases, Cummins only accepts VR referrals whose primary disabilities are related to mental health. However, in counties where community healthcare resources are limited, Cummins sometimes provides employment services for people with physical or developmental challenges, such as deafness and autism. Jennifer reports that employment specialists receive additional training for assisting consumers in these situations.

Ultimately, the goal of employment services is to help people take their mental and occupational wellness into their own hands and find rewarding, personally fulfilling employment. According to Jennifer:

“Employment and vocation can be a huge piece of recovery for our consumers. It gives them something to do and to look forward to, interaction with other people, and the ability to have extra money and do things on a social basis. Really, we try to empower them. It’s not like we just find a job for them—they have to work at it. They see the hard work and the effort that they put into it, so it’s a lot more meaningful to them.”

If you’d like to learn more about the employment services that Cummins provides, including our free employment workshops, check out this video featuring Jennifer Crooks and Debbie Roman!

And if you enjoyed this post, you might also like our blog about the behavioral health benefits of volunteering. You can check it out below!

How Volunteering Bolsters Mental Health with Cummins’ Jennifer Crooks and Mental Health America’s Tammi Jessup

School Based Services

Michelle: “[We’re headed to] Austin, Texas, to the National Center for School Mental Health conference. It’s an organization sponsored by the University of Maryland. They really focus on school mental health services and schools partnering with community mental health centers to provide services in schools. So, we’re really excited about that.”

Jessica: “The title is ‘Invisible Backpacks: How Trauma Impacts Learning.’ And the reason that is very important is because we don’t always know what our students walk in with. In addition to just regular student concerns like finals or prom or college, there’s additional concerns. Maybe it’s ‘Am I going to eat today?’ or ‘Am I going to come home and my parents are home today?’ And we wouldn’t see those.”

Michelle: “I love the story that Jessica tells about when her three-year-old, Halie, actually saw the image of the little boy carrying the backpack to school. Can you tell that story?

Jessica: “Yeah. So, she saw the image and she goes, ‘Wow! It really looks like he’s carrying something really heavy, and he’s sweating, and the school’s really far away. It looks like it’s going to be really hard for him to get to school today.’ And I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s exactly the whole point. Exactly.’ “

Michelle: “I think one of the important things is recognizing that it truly is a partnership. So, having a CMHC within your building does not eliminate any services. It really adds to the available services that are at the school, which is why the tier system is so important. So, we worked with Avon schools in particular to really develop how our services fit and line up with that tier. I’ll let Jessica talk a little bit about the tier system.”

Jessica: “So, the bottom tier is Tier One, which is school counselors. They handle the majority of the students in the building. And then Tier Two is something that’s kind of special to Avon, which is social workers. And then the Tier Three system is Cummins, which is the most intensive services. So, what’s fantastic is the student can go up the tier system, but then they can go back down. So, they can still have services after they complete services with us. They don’t have nothing, they still have those eyes on them and still have that support.”

Michelle: “In Hendricks County, we’re co-located in close to 30 schools now, which is amazing, throughout Avon, Brownsburg and Danville, all secondary and elementary schools. And so, we provide on-site behavioral health services for students and their families right there at the school. We’re also on-site to provide any emergency, high-risk assessments that any child might need, and also consultations to staff and administrators.
“Being co-located in the school, I think, helps to try and eliminate some of the stigma, because we’re really ingrained into the school community so we’re seen just as another partner, another entity of the school, really. So, a child being seen with one of our providers is just like seeing a staff member at the school. At the same time, you know, with administrators and school personnel, it’s also helpful for them to continue to understand how important services are to decrease that stigma, so that we can be that voice in the room that says, ‘You know, I think that Johnny isn’t a hot mess, I think Johnny really does have some behavioral concerns that stem from all of these generational things that have happened to him in his life.” And so, really to help them reframe and start a different conversation about how they are viewing the children in their system.

How Volunteering Bolsters Mental Health with Cummins’ Jennifer Crooks and Mental Health America’s Tammi Jessup

“You make a living by what you get. You make a life by what you give.” — Winston Churchill

Last year, 30.3% of adults in the U.S. volunteered, according to a study conducted by the Corporation for National and Community Services. That’s 77.34 million people. Collectively, Americans volunteered nearly 6.9 billion hours, and many more performed “informal” volunteering by supporting friends and family or doing favors for neighbors.

Volunteers are a tremendous asset for many organizations across the country, especially those that are not for profit. In fact, many charitable nonprofits have few paid employees and rely heavily on volunteers for daily operations. However, volunteering isn’t just beneficial for the people and organizations that receive help—it also leads to positive outcomes for those who give their time.

For starters, research has shown that older adults who volunteer or support others have lower mortality rates and report greater life satisfaction than those who do not volunteer. Among young people, volunteering has been linked to positive social development in terms of increased political awareness, greater belief that they can make a difference in their community, and greater confidence that they will succeed in higher education.

Most importantly, volunteerism is a protective factor that can help people avoid or mitigate mental health issues. We spoke with Jennifer Crooks, Cummins’ Director of Employment Services, and Tammi Jessup, Executive Director of Mental Health America of Hendricks County, to learn more about how volunteering can be beneficial for mental wellness.

Explaining Volunteerism through Role Theory

As the Director of Employment Services at Cummins Behavioral Health Systems, Jennifer Crooks, BSW, often helps to find opportunities for clients who are interested in volunteering.

In the fields of preventative medicine and behavioral health, a protective factor is anything that decreases the chances of a negative health outcome. These may be resources, supports or coping skills that help people deal with stress more effectively, or they may be attributes that counteract risk factors for physical and mental health.

An abundance of psychological research has shown that volunteering is one such protective factor. For example, some studies have found that formal volunteering gives older adults a greater sense of purpose by mitigating “role-identity absences” in later life. According to Jennifer Crooks, this is also true for people who do not work. “Employment and vocation is a huge piece of the eight dimensions of wellness, and when we think about people who don’t have that piece in their life, volunteering can help them feel like they’re giving back to the community and that they’re part of the community,” she says.

The connection between volunteering and life satisfaction is explained by “role theory,” a concept from social psychology which states that a person’s social connections give meaning and purpose to their life. According to this theory, if a person has more social roles, they will feel a greater sense of purpose and be protected from isolation during difficult periods in life. By fostering meaningful, life-enriching social connections, volunteering can be beneficial for almost anyone’s mental well-being, as Jennifer explains: 

“Volunteering gives people purpose. If they can help another person or an animal, then they see the joy in that. If they’re recovering from a mental health issue, you’ll notice a difference in their recovery when they start getting out and being more engaged. It gives them something to look forward to, something that’s a positive in their life when negatives may be all they see sometimes.”

Volunteerism and Mental Health America of Hendricks County

"We're always looking for volunteers. We're a small staff, so there's always help that we can use and things that need to be done," says Tammi Jessup, Executive Director at Mental Health America of Hendricks County.

The positive effect that volunteering has on mental health is indisputable, and as we mentioned earlier, volunteer labor is indispensable to many well-meaning but under-funded organizations. However, the individuals and organizations that could most benefit from each other don’t always connect. This is something that Tammi Jessup of Mental Health America of Hendricks County witnesses on a regular basis:

“We have a support group for anyone with any kind of mental health condition, and I’ve talked about this with various people in the group for years. There are a wealth of opportunities for people to volunteer, whether they want to be around people or not be around people, or whether they want to work with animals, or whether they want office work. Whatever they want, there are so, so many places that would love to have volunteers.”

As a nonprofit itself, Mental Health America of Hendricks County (or MHAHC) depends on volunteer help to complete its mission of promoting mental wellness in the community. “We perform puppet shows for elementary school students, and we almost always need puppeteers because we need people who have availability during the school day. We have office work that can be done, we have landscaping work, and we have craft work for our wreaths that we sell at Christmastime,” Jessup says.

To make the experience as rewarding as possible, MHAHC does its best to give volunteers tasks that they enjoy and are well suited for. “We try to match the volunteering to a person’s interests and abilities and make it fun for them,” Jessup says.

Mental Health America of Hendricks County is in need of volunteers this month for its annual Christmas wreath fundraiser and holiday “Gift Lift” program! You can call the office at 317-272-0027 or email at if you are interested in volunteering!